Hemp, along with wheat, beans, and rice, were produced by early Neolithic farmer communities along the Wei and Yellow rivers. Remains of hemp fibers and seeds have been recovered from archeological sites especially near the Yellow and Yangtze rivers. Through long term efforts, the ancient Chinese domesticated hemp from a wild plant into a cultivated crop approximately 8000 B.C.
Ancient and modern historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, and philologists cite physical evidence (artifacts, relics, textiles, cuneiform, languages, etc.) indicating that cannabis is one of mankind’s oldest cultivated crops. The weaving of hemp fiber as an industry began 10,000 years ago, at approximately the same time as pottery – making and prior to metal working. – Columbia History of the World”, Harper & Row, 1981.
Archeological records show that hemp, or cannabis sativa, was first utilized and domesticated in ancient Taiwan and China. 10,000-4000 B.C.
Tai Ma – Great Hemp
By the 27th Century B.C., the Chinese “Ma” (cannabis hemp) was used for fiber, food, and medicine. 3700 years later (circa 1000 A.D.), China called cannabis “Tai Ma” or “great hemp,” to differentiate it from minor plants, which were now grouped under the generic fiber term “Ma.” Their pictogram for true or great hemp is a large “man,” indicating the strong relationship between man and hemp. – Shen Nung Pharmacopoeia, Ponts’ao; Han Dynasty Classics; et al.
Archeological records show that hemp, or cannabis sativa, was first utilized and domesticated in ancient Taiwan and China from 10,000-4000 B.C. Cannabis seed was used for food by the ancient Chinese. “The Book of Songs” has the following mention of the use of hemp seed for food, “Farmers eat hemp seeds in September.”
Hemp was commonly grown as a seed crop throughout the Spring and Autumn period (770 to 476 BC), Warring States period, the Qin dynasty (221 to 207 BC), and the Han dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD). The ‘Li Qi’ places hemp among the “five grains” of ancient China which included barley, rice, wheat, and soybeans. Hemp seed remained a staple of the Chinese diet through the 10th century when other higher quality grain became more widespread.
There are hemp seeds and inscriptions of the characters ‘tai’ and ‘ma’ on bones found amongst the relics unearthed from the Jin dynasty (265 to 420 AD) ruins in Henan province. Among the sacrificial objects unearthed from the Han dynasty era are: the Ma Wang Dui tomb near Changsha in the Hunan province, where hemp seeds were stored together with those of rice, millet, and wheat. Hemp seed remains were also found inside of earthenware grain storage jars recovered from a tomb at Shao-kou near the Han dynasty capital of Lo-yang in present day Hunan province.
In fact, every district in ancient China grew hemp. Typically, each district tried to be self-sufficient and grow everything it needed to support its own needs. When it couldn’t raise something itself, it grew crops or manufactured materials that it could trade for essential goods. Accordingly, crops were planted around homes not only because of the suitability of the land, but also because of their commercial value. The closer to the home, the greater the value of the crop.
Because food was essential, millet and rice were grown wherever land and water were available. Next came vegetable gardens and orchards, and beyond them the textile plants, chiefly hemp. Cereals and vegetables came thereafter. After the hemp was harvested by the men, the women, who were the weavers, manufactured clothes from the fibers for the family. After the family’s needs were satisfied, other garments were produced for sale. To support their families, weaving began in autumn and lasted all winter.
The Land of Mulberry and Hemp
In fact, hemp was so highly regarded by the Chinese that they called their country the “land of mulberry and hemp”. A piece of hemp cloth was unearthed at a ruin named Ma Wang Dui No. 1 near Changsha in Hunan province. Careful analysis showed that the fiber diameter was 21.83 microns, and the fiber cross sectional area was 153.01 square microns. Both values are very close to those common for present day hemp varieties. The weave of the cloth is relatively tight, indicating that weaving techniques had become quite advanced by this time.
Hemp was one of the earliest crop plants of China. Through long term efforts, the ancient Chinese domesticated hemp from a wild plant into a cultivated crop. According to the Chinese historic records and archeological data, the history of Chinese hemp cultivation and use spans approximately 5,000 to 6,000 years. The archeological record shows that China was the earliest region to cultivate and use hemp. From the time of the earliest primitive societies (about 4,000 -5,000 years ago) to the Qin and Hah dynasties (221 BC to 220 AD) ancient Chinese techniques of hemp sowing, cultivation, and processing developed rapidly and became fairly advanced.
*One ‘chi’ equals about 1/3 meter or 13 inches.
**One ‘mu’ equals about 660 square meters.
***One ‘shi’ equals about 30 kilograms or 66 pounds.
****One ‘cun’ equals about 2.5 centimeters or one inch
Cultivation and Fertilization
“Hoe up all the weeds in the field during the summer solstice (June 21), let them dry in the sun, and then burn them into ash. All these ashes will permeate into the soil after a heavy rain and the soil will be fertilized.”
This is also one of the earliest mentions of using potash fertilizer in agriculture from “Ji Sheng’s Book” written by Ji Sheng during the Western Han dynasty (206 BC to 24 AD) and “Qi Min Yao Shu” written by Gui Shi Xian during the Northern Wei dynasty (386 to 534 AD). All of these books contain accounts of hemp cultivation. “Deep plow and fertilize the soil before sowing the seed. When spring comes, about February to March, let the dusk of four rainy days to sow seeds. Remove the hemp’s big leaves when it is growing. Then thin out seedlings according to the distance of 9 per ‘chi’*. Fertilize the hemp with silkworm excrement when it has grown to one chi tall, and when it has grown to three chi tall, fertilize it with silkworm and pig excrement. Water the hemp frequently, and if there is much rain, the quantity of water should be decreased. The water from wells should be used where there is no river near the field and it should be warmed by the sun before using. By using all of these controls, the yield of dry stalks and leaves from each ‘mu’** could be 50-100 ‘shi’*** and the lowest yield could be 30 shi. The quality of hemp fiber depends not only on the field controls, but also on the sowing time. If the sowing time is early, the fiber will be thick and strong and can be harvested early. Otherwise, the fiber will not be mature. So, it is better to sow hemp seed early instead of late.”
“If we pull out the male hemp before it scatters pollen, the female plant cannot make seed. Otherwise, the female plant’s seed production will be influenced by the male hemp plants scattering pollen and during this period of time, the fiber of the male hemp plant is the best.” Ancient Chinese hemp cultivation techniques of collecting seeds, sowing time, field controls, and their influence on hemp quality were also recorded in “The Essential Arts for the People”, or Qi Min Yao Shu, which is a precious legacy of ancient Chinese science written 1,400 years ago.
“The Essential Arts for the People” systematically summarized the ancient Chinese techniques of hemp cultivation. In the text, there are accurate records about the relation between the male hemp plant scattering pollen and the female hemp plant bearing seed.
Ts’ai Lun’s Bright Idea – The Origins of Hemp Fibre
Ts’ai Lun had a better idea. Why not make a tablet out of fiber? But how? Producing writing tablets the way clothes were manufactured, by patiently intermingling individual fibers was not practical. There had to be some other way to get the fibers to mix with one another in a lattice structure that would be sturdy enough not to fall apart. No one knows how Ts’ai Lun finally discovered the secret of manufacturing paper from fiber. Perhaps it was a case of trial and error. However, the method he finally devised involved crushing hemp fibers and mulberry tree bark into a pulp and placing the mixture in a tank of water. Eventually, the fibers rose to the top all tangled together. Portions of this flotsam were then removed and placed in a mold. When dried in such molds, the fibers formed into sheets which could then be written on. When Ts’ai Lun first presented his invention to China’s arm-weary bureaucrats, he thought they would react to it with great enthusiasm. Instead, he was jeered out of court.
Since no one at court was willing to recognize the importance of paper, Ts’ai Lun decided that the only way to convince people of its value was through trickery. He would use paper, he told all who would listen, to bring back the dead! With the help of some friends, Ts’ai Lun feigned death and had himself buried alive in a coffin. Unknown to most of those who witnessed the internment, the coffin contained a small hole; through it, a hollow bamboo shoot had been inserted, to provide the trickster an air supply. While his family and friends mourned his death, Ts’ai Lun patiently rested in his coffin below the earth. Then, some time later, his conspirators announced that if some of the paper invented by the dead man were burned, he would rise from the dead and once again take his place among the living.
Although highly skeptical, the mourners wished to give the departed every chance, so they set a sizable quantity of paper ablaze. When the conspirators felt that they had generated enough suspense, they exhumed the coffin and ripped off the cover. To the shock and amazement of all present, Ts’ai Lun sat up and thanked them for their devotion to him and their faith in his invention.
The resurrection was regarded as a miracle, the power of which was attributed to the magic of paper. So great an impression did the Houdini-like escape create that shortly thereafter the Chinese adopted the custom, which they still follow to this day, of burning paper over graves of the dead. Among the many important inventions credited to the Chinese, paper must surely rank at the very top. Without paper, the progress of civilization would have advanced at a snail’s pace. Mass production of newspapers, magazines, books, notepaper, etc, would all be impossible. Business and industry would come to a standstill without paper to record transactions, keep track of inventories, and make payments of large sums of money. Nearly every activity we now take for granted would be a monumental undertaking were it not for paper. According to Chinese legend, the paper-making process was invented by a minor court official, Ts’ai Lun, in A.D. 105.
The Invention of Paper
According to Chinese legend, the paper-making process was invented by a minor court official, Ts’ai Lun, in A.D. 105. Prior to that time, the Chinese carved their writings onto bamboo slips and wooden tablets. Before the invention of paper, Chinese scholars had to be physically fit if they wished to devote their lives to learning. When philosopher Me Ti moved around the country, for example, he took a minimum of three cartloads of books with him. Emperor Ts’in Shih Huagn, a particularly conscientious ruler, waded through 120 pounds of state documents a day in looking after his administrative duties! Without some less weighty writing medium, Chinese scholars and statesmen could look forward to at least one hernia if they were any good at their jobs. As a first alternative to these cumbersome tablets, the Chinese painted their words on silk fabric with brushes. But silk was very expensive. A thousand silkworms working day in and day out were needed to produce the silk for a simple “thank you” note.
The Word Spreads
It was not until the ninth century A.D. that the Arabs, and through them the rest of the world, learned how to manufacture paper. The events that led to the disclosure of the paper-making process are somewhat uncertain, but apparently the secret was pried from some Chinese prisoners captured by the Arabs during the Battle of Samarkand (in present-day Russia). The Chinese kept the secret of paper hidden for many centuries, but eventually it became known to the Japanese. In a small book entitled “A Handy Guide to Papermaking”; dating back to the fifth century A.D., the author states that “hemp and mulberry… have long been used in worshipping the gods. The business of paper making therefore, is no ignoble calling.”
The First Textiles
A piece of hemp textile with a silver-white design was unearthed from a tomb in a cliff near Guixi in Jiangxi province and dated to the Spring and Autumn (770 to 476 BC) or Warring States period (476 to 221 BC). During the Tang dynasty (618 to 907 AD), China had close trade relations with central and west Asian countries and there are many traces of hemp along the Silk Road. Two pairs of hemp shoes and a piece of hemp cloth were found in a tomb dated to 721 A.D. near Turfan in Xinjiang province of western China. This archeological data shows that the ancient Chinese had already known how to cultivate hemp and use its fiber to weave cloth at a very early date.
The ancient Chinese used the hemp plant for many different purposes. The bast fiber of the male plant was used to spin yarn and weave cloth. From the time of the earliest Chinese societies, until cotton was introduced into China during the Northern Song dynasty (960 to 1127 AD), hemp textile was the main cloth worn by the ancient Chinese. Many of the accounts of hemp use for cordage and textiles contained in the ancient Chinese texts have been corroborated by archeological discoveries.
During the Western Zhou dynasty (1100 to 771 BC) the hats of nobles were made of hemp. The fine diameter of the yarn in the cloth was equivalent to modern 70-80 count yarn. High-quality raw material, along with advanced cultivation and processing techniques were needed to produce such fine cloth.
Hemp cloth has a long association with burial rites. Corpses were often shrouded in hemp cloth before interment. Hemp corpse covers were recovered from Western Han Dynasty (206 BC to 24 AD) tombs in Gansu province. The hemp cloth outer shrouds were used to cover silk dresses and were then tied with hemp ropes.
We learn from these records that Han dynasty farmers not only knew to select the appropriate season to sow hemp, but also knew the principles of field controls, and selected the higher quality fibers from the male plants to spin textile yarn. The cultivation technique of hemp was increasingly perfected during the Qin (221 to 207 BC) and Han dynasties (206 BC to 220 AD) there are detailed descriptions in Ji Sheng’s Book of hemp’s cultivation techniques and quality control.
In 1972, fragments of cloth, bronze containers, weapons, and pieces of jade were found in an ancient burial site from the Zhou dynasty (1122-249 B.C.). Inspection of the cloth showed it to be made of hemp, making this the oldest preserved specimen of hemp in existence. As they became more familiar with the plant, the Chinese discovered it was dioecious (characterized by species in which the male and female reproductive organs occur on different individuals and are sexually distinct). Male plants were then clearly distinguished from females by name (hsi for the male, chu for the female). The Chinese also recognized that the male plants produced a better fiber than the female, whereas the female produced the better seeds. So important a place did hemp fiber occupy in ancient Chinese culture that the Book of Rites (second century B.C.) ordained that out of respect for the dead, mourners should wear clothes made from hemp fabric, a custom followed down to modern times. The ancient Chinese not only wove their clothes from hemp, they also used the sturdy fiber to manufacture shoes.
How the earthworm came to have white rings
According to Japanese legend, there were once two women who were both fine weavers of hemp fiber. One woman made fine hemp fabric but was a very slow worker. Her neighbor was just the opposite – she made coarse fabric but worked quickly. During market days, which were held only periodically, it was customary for Japanese women to dress in their best clothes, and as the day approached, the two women began to weave new dresses for the occasion. The woman who worked quickly had her dress ready on time, but it was not very fashionable. Her neighbor, who worked slowly, only managed to get the unbleached white strands ready, and when market day came, she didn’t have her dress ready. Since she had to go to market, she persuaded her husband to carry her in a large jar on his back so that only her neck, with the white undyed hemp strands around it would be visible. In this way, everyone would think she was clothed instead of being naked inside the jar. On the way to the market, the woman in the jar saw her neighbor and started making fun of her coarse dress. The neighbor shot back that at least she was clothed. “Break the jar,” she told everyone who could hear, “and you will find a naked woman”. The husband became so mortified that he dropped the jar, which broke, revealing his naked wife, clothed only in hemp strands around her neck. The woman was so ashamed as she stood naked before everyone that she buried herself in the earth so that she would not be seen and she turned into an earthworm. And that, according to the Japanese, is why the earthworm has white rings around its neck.
Hemp in Ancient Chinese Warfare
Hemp fiber was also once a factor in the wars waged by Chinese land barons. Initially, Chinese archers fashioned their bowstrings from bamboo fibers. When hemp’s greater strength and durability were discovered, bamboo strings were replaced with those made from hemp. Equipped with these superior bowstrings, archers could send their arrows further and with greater force. Enemy archers, whose weapons were made from inferior bamboo, were at a considerable disadvantage. With ineffectual archers, armies were vulnerable to attack at distances from which they could not effectively return the hail of deadly missiles that rained upon them. So important was the hemp bowstring that Chinese monarchs of old set aside large portions of land exclusively for hemp, the first agricultural war crop. Hemp, along with wheat, beans, and rice, were produced by early Neolithic farmer communities along the Wei and Yellow rivers. Remains of hemp fibers and seeds have been recovered from archeological sites especially near the Yellow and Yangtze rivers. Through long term efforts, the ancient Chinese domesticated hemp from a wild plant into a cultivated crop approximately 8000 B.C.
Hemp and Religion
Because of hemp’s association with purity in Japanese religion, hemp traditionally has been used by Shinto priests, including the Japanese emperor himself who acts as a kind of chief priest of Shintoism. Several hemp fields are cultivated on Shikoku, one of the four main islands of Japan, to make ceremonial linen clothes for the Imperial family and for Shinto priests.
Hemp is also grown in some parts of Nagano prefecture by farmers with a hemp license and the fiber is used for bell ropes and noren (ritual curtains) for Shinto shrines as well as in sumo rituals. The reason for the hole in the Yen is that coins used to be lined up on hemp strings and carried around like that. In historic Japan (as in China before) everybody’s wallet used to be a piece of hemp, the most durable and trusted natural fibre known to man.
This is the main shrine of the Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess. Since the Japanese emperors claim to be her descendants it is also the main shrine of Japanese Imperial family.
Five times a year so called “tai ma” (hemp) ceremonies are conducted at the shrine:
January 8:taima reki hôsei hajime sai
March 1: taima reki hampu chûryû sai
Mid-April: taima reki yôzai kiri hajime sai
September 17:taima reki hampu hajime sai
December 20:taima reki hosei chûryû sai
Legend of Marriage
Hemp fiber also played a part in love and marital life in Japan. Another ancient Japanese legend tells of a soldier who had been romancing a young girl and was about to bid her farewell without giving her as much as his name, rank, or regiment. But the girl was not about to be jilted by this handsome and charming paramour. Unbeknownst to her mysterious lover, she fastened the end of a huge ball of hemp rope to his clothing as he kissed her farewell. By following the thread, she eventually came to the temple of the god Miva, and discovered that her suitor had been none other than the god himself.
Besides its roles in such legends, hemp strands were an integral part of Japanese love and marriage. Hemp strands were often hung on trees as charms to bind lovers (as in the legend). Gifts of hemp were sent as wedding gifts by the man’s family to the prospective bride’s family as a sign that they were accepting the girl, and hemp strands were prominently displayed during wedding ceremonies to symbolize the traditional obedience of Japanese wives to their husbands. The basis of the latter tradition was the ease with which hemp could be dyed. Just as hemp could be dyed to any color, so, too, according to an ancient Japanese saying, must wives be willing to be “dyed in any color their husbands may choose”.
Hemp in Everyday Life
Hemp fiber was highly regarded among the Japanese and figured prominently in their everyday lives and legends. Hemp (asa) was the primary material in Japanese clothes, bedding, mats and nets. Clothes made of hemp fiber were especially worn during formal and religious ceremonies because of hemp’s traditional association with purity in Japan. So fundamental was hemp in Japanese life that it was often mentioned in legends explaining the origins of everyday things, such as how the Japanese earthworm came to have white rings around its neck.
Hemp Rope in Sumo
During the sumo ritual of dôyo-iri a yokozuna, the highest ranking sumo wrestler, will ritually cleanse the dôyo (sumo ring) to exorcise evil, wearing a hemp rope weighing several kilograms around his belly. The choice of material is no coincidence. The reason for it is hemp’s association with purity, with driving out evil spirits.
Way of the Gods
Hemp has an important function in the mythology of Shinto, the “Way of the Gods”, as the ancient indigenous religion of Japan is known. Hemp was used to purify, to drive out evil (exorcism). Hemp seeds were used in Shinto marriage ceremonies. In some ceremonies hemp leaves were burnt as an “invitation to the spirits”.
Even today there are Shinto ceremonies at major shrines such as Ise Jingu in Mie prefecture and other shrines that involve the burning of taima (hemp).
Yet another use of hemp in Japan was in ceremonial purification rites for driving away evil spirits. As already mentioned, in China evil spirits were banished from the bodies of the sick by banging rods made from hemp against the head of the sickbed. In Japan, Shinto priests performed a similar rite with a gohei, a short stick with undyed hemp fibers (for purity) attached to one end. According to Shinto beliefs, evil and impurity cannot exist alongside one another, and so, by waving the gohei (purity) above someone’s head the evil spirit inside him would be driven away. “Well, the prayer given at the Ise Jingu, which is the shrine to Amaterasu, the founding god of the imperial family, is called taima, or hemp. Hemp and rice are two sacred things which are part and parcel of the rites conducted at Ise Jingu. This is because hemp and rice were the staple products of the Jomon and Yayoi cultures, respectively. This means they were the most sacred things to these people. The imperial tribe, which was an invading people, took possession of these two sacred things and made them into instruments of control,” – Yamada Kaiya, in the December 1995 issue of Jiyu Ishi, translated version in Tokyo Observer 15.
Another Shinto tale tells that every October, all the deities from around Japan gather at a sacred site in rural Shimane prefecture (Sea of Japan side of Honshu, south of Tottori) at Japan’s largest jinja (shrine) called Iizumo taisha. During this month, the rest of the nation is left unprotected from calamity while the Gods hold a harvest and match-making ritual celebration. Shimane-ken is far out of the way of any urban center and, besides being “Home of the Gods,” it was the home to bounteous hemp harvests up until about 50 years ago.” Ma, the Chinese word for hemp, is composed of two symbols which are meant to depict hemp. The part beneath and to the right of the straight lines represent hemp fibers dangling from a rack. The horizontal and vertical lines represent the home in which they were drying. There are also records about hemp cultivation and fertilization methods from the Zhou dynasty (1100 to 256 BC), with instruction for the best harvest.
Abel, Ernest, “Marijuana, The Text and photos courtesy of Abel, Ernest, “Marijuana, The First 12,000 Years”, 2005; Clarke, Robert C. and Xiaozhai Lu, “The Cultivation and Use of Hemp in Ancient China”, 1984; Hart, Michael, “Ts’ai Lun: In 100 A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History”, (pg36-41), Hart Publishing Co., 1974; Huang, Heng-Zheng, “The Invention of Paper: In Inventions and Discoveries of the World”, (pp83-87), Yuan Liu Publishing Co., 1981; Li, Hui-Lin, “An archeological and historical account of Cannabis in China”, Economic Botany, 28(4): 437-448.First 12,000 Years”, 2005; Hart, Michael, “Ts’ai Lun. In 100 A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History”, (pg36-41). Hart Publishing Co., 1974; Huang, Heng-Zheng, “The Invention of Paper: In Inventions and Discoveries of the World”, (pp83-87), Yuan Liu Publishing Co., 1981.